‘Default’ choices have big impact, but how to make sure they’re used ethically?
by Mary Steffel, Elanor Williams, Ruth Pogacar, The Conversation
Lawmakers in Texas just introduced a bill that would make a small change but potentially a big difference to the thousands of people awaiting organ transplants in the state. It also illustrates the subtle power of choice “defaults.”
The bill would tweak the text in driver’s license applications from “Would you like to join the organ donor registry?” to “Would you like to refuse to join the organ donor registry?” In other words, if passed, the legislation would make all applicants organ donors by default; they would have to explicitly opt out.
The language doesn’t take away individuals’ freedom to choose whether they’d like to be a donor, but the change would theoretically lead to more organ donors – and more lives saved – because social and behavioral sciences research shows most people accept whatever is listed as the default option. For example, a 2003 study found that the number of people who consented to be organ donors was about 80 percent higher in countries with opt-out policies – similar to the Texas proposal – than those with opt-in policies.
The power of defaults to guide people’s choices has made them an extremely popular way for policymakers and marketers alike to nudge people toward a particular decision. But it has also raised questions about how to ensure that defaults are used ethically and responsibly.